BOOK BEAT Naples Sun Times August 2-8, 2006
by Philip K. Jason
Suppose you took Tin City and the nearby Dockside Boardwalk shops, stretched all the businesses out along one long walkway, added a roller coaster, and relocated the whole thing (multiplied many times in size and variety) parallel to the shore as a pedestrian thoroughfare. Then Naples would have the kind of celebrated beachfront boardwalk that James Lilliefors honors in his new book, America’s Boardwalks: From Coney Island to California, published by Rutgers University Press. Don’t want that kind of honky-tonk stuff in Naples? Too bad. And it hasn’t always been all honky-tonk.
Every reader in Naples has enjoyed James Lilliefors’ writing. Whenever you read something published by The Philharmonic Center for the Arts, including the fine profiles in the playbills and in the exhibit brochures, you are no doubt reading Lilliefors, the senior writer there. His work appears regularly in Gulfshore Life, and before that he wrote for that daily newspaper in town (winning an award for excellence in feature writing from the Florida Press Club). Ever since 1994, when he came from Maryland to Naples to work on a novel – Bananaville, published in 1996 – he has been very much part of the scene. More accurately, he has been describing the scene. He is also the co-writer of the FGCU alma mater!
Born in Los Angeles, Lilliefors was raised in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. His father was a professor of statistics at George Washington University. Jim became a fanatical runner and an aspiring writer in high school, but early signs suggested that writing might be the way to go. At sixteen, he sold a story to Runner’s World magazine, and at twenty, when that same publication offered him a job, he quit college and moved to California. He worked there from 1976-1978, then left to become a novelist. Eventually returning to college, Lilliefors earned his B.A. from the University of Iowa and attended graduate school at the University of Virginia, where he was a Hoyns Fellow in Fiction Writing.
After one year of that, Lilliefors took a newspaper job at in Ocean City, Maryland (at one end of U. S. 50 with the sign “Sacramento 3,073 miles”), intending to stay for just the summer. When the publisher, who was starting a new paper, asked if he wanted to be the editor, Jim ended up running the paper for nine years. During this time, Lilliefors also covered Ocean City and Maryland’s Eastern Shore for the Washington Post. He wrote for other publications as well, including US magazine and the Baltimore Sun, and he even became the boxing correspondent for a national magazine called The Cable Guide. Lilliefors started a couple of novels, got a contract for a road book that became Highway 50: Ain’t That America (published in 1993), and co-founded another newspaper at the beach, which is still going. And then to Naples to work on Bananaville (set in a beach town, of course) and, eventually, America’s Boardwalks.
In this beautifully written and copiously illustrated volume, Lilliefors writes: “Each boardwalk resort has its own character, shaped by history, memory, demographics, real estate, and travel trends.” In twelve chapters, he probes the character of twelve distinctive boardwalk communities, detailing their founding and development, elaborating on the special flavor of each, and profiling the local characters intimately related to the values and texture of the place. For each place, as well, there is an assessment of the present situation and some guesses about the future. Each of these communities has had its ups and downs, and several have been reinvented from time to time to satisfy changing tastes and economic realities.
Lilliefors tells the stories of what he calls representative boardwalk resorts, not necessarily the best. But many would be inescapable choices by any criteria: Atlantic City, Coney Island, Asbury Park, Wildwood, Cape May, Rehoboth Beach (Delaware), Ocean City (Maryland), Virginia Beach, Myrtle Beach, Daytona Beach – and then jumping across the continent to Venice Beach and Santa Cruz. He examines the paradoxical nature of these places, at once destinations for all-American families and pleasure kingdoms where tackiness, tawdriness, and corruption often reign. This is an intelligent, accessible, and thoroughly enjoyable journey through an important facet of American popular culture – a fascinating, sensual register of American values. Can you imagine the archeologists of the future interpreting American civilization as they excavate boardwalk resorts? Lilliefors can.
Hear James Lilliefors speak about America’s Boardwalks and get your copy signed at the Naples Barnes and Noble on Friday, August 18  at 7:00pm.
Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club. Send him your book news at email@example.com.